African-Americans in Baseball

JESSICA BADER: Every year, as Major League Baseball commemorates the anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the sport’s color barrier, the massive baseball punditosphere tends to ponder the declining percentage of baseball players who are African-American (now generally around 10%, a far cry from the nearly 30% in the mid-1970s). The increase in foreign-born players is often cited as a major factor, as is the expense involved in participating in organized youth baseball. While these are undoubtedly significant contributors to the sparse African-American presence in the major leagues, I think the college and minor-league structure of baseball as compared to the other major American sports plays a major role that is often overlooked.

Many top high-school athletes are multi-sport talents who have to decide which sport – baseball, basketball, or football – to pursue. For those who do not come from money, parlaying their athletic abilities into a college scholarship is a major consideration. Here, basketball and football have a significant advantage over baseball, as those sports have more scholarships to offer.

The transition from college to the pros is also different in baseball than it is in the other two sports. Basketball and football players drafted out of college generally go straight to the NBA or NFL. That is not the case in baseball, where even top draft picks often spend a few years in the minor leagues, making paltry salaries and enduring long bus rides, before getting up to the majors – if they ever make it up there, that is. Later-round picks are even less likely to ever get to the majors and don’t get big signing bonuses. Baseball is not the ideal path for an athlete looking to earn a lucrative salary right away.

While these factors discourage low-income Americans of all races from choosing baseball over basketball or football, the racial income gap in the United States (Census Bureau figures from 2006 place the median income among African-American households at about 65% of the median for all households) makes them especially influential in the decisions made by African-American high-school athletes. For every Jason Heyward, whose Dartmouth-educated parents didn’t let him play football, there are countless young athletes who can’t afford to make that choice.

Initiatives such as RBI are a decent start at encouraging greater African-American participation in baseball, but they will not be enough. If college baseball programs are able to offer more scholarships and the next round of collective bargaining results in higher salaries for minor-league players, perhaps our national pastime will once again be able to draw from an American talent pool that extends beyond the upper-middle class.

JASON CLINKSCALES: The decline of an African-American presence in baseball is one of the sorest subjects in all of American sports. Honestly, just like anything else dealing with race in America. The sport that rightfully venerates Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby for painfully, but successfully ushering in a new era in the game and society has found its percentage of black baseball players decline sharply over the last decade. To its credit, Major League Baseball hasn’t sat on its hands, but if it’s serious about kicking those numbers up again, they could use a LOT more help from their amateur partners in the NCAA. Just as other sports have been able to cull talents in the amateur ranks prior to their arrival in the big leagues, baseball could use a bit more of effort from college programs to recruit just as heavy as their counterparts in basketball and football.

A few weeks ago for my site, A Sports Scribe, I brought up arguably the most overlooked reason for the percentage decline: choice. Essentially, an unintended consequence of integration in sports and the subsequent civil rights movement was that children of later generations could actually have the option to not participate in the institutions that pioneers fought to enter. It was not an easy perspective to take as for years, I subscribed strictly to the theory of relatively high costs for many families. While I still believe that there is a cost-prohibiting nature to the game that limits ANYONE with some financial hardships, the same can be said for football, hockey, tennis and a slew of other sports.

As discussed in the Scribe post, we are in an era where children have an abundance of entertainment options and potential career interests. They can actually choose to blaze a trail in a field completely unrelated to sports, let alone baseball. This wasn’t the case when Hank Aaron was swatting baseballs from coast to coast.

Jessica brought up the point of college recruitment, much to my delight. Yet, I believe that while the allure of the cash in the minors is great and parents have a significant level of involvement in an athlete’s direction, college baseball programs should take a far greater onus to recruit more black athletes to their game.

In basketball and football, once college programs saw the success of integrated or nearly all-black rosters, they just dipped in that pool heavier and far more successfully than baseball. That’s exactly what happened when the all-black Texas Western squad beat Adolph Rupp (and Pat Riley’s) Kentucky Wildcats in 1966. It was how Bear Bryant was able to convince Alabama to recruit blacks heavy after the Crimson Tide got beat down by USC in 1970 (pushing the SEC into modern times). Or even the story of Syracuse football prior to that with the successes of both Jim Brown and Ernie Davis.

Name the first black baseball player in the college ranks or even a watershed game in the college ranks? 99.99995% of this country CAN’T. Why? There just wasn’t that push.
Granted, the college game isn’t televised or promoted very much. Few know of the powerhouses like Texas, Arizona State, Rice and the University of Miami. Even locally, I was surprised to learn that along with Monroe College (a Bronx-housed public college whose program I was familiar with); St. John’s and Rutgers have nationally respected programs.

With baseball, you could hop onto a minor league squad straight out of high school or after obtaining the GED. If drafted by a MLB team, you can be guaranteed some money, though very few actually sign a contract of great sums. It’s a common selling point by many who want to see more black players in the game; one not without merit considering the financial structure of baseball compared to other sports.

Yet, in other sports, they can point to a brand name school and compare one player’s body of work to another’s based on historical recruiting, scheduling and coaching.

The powers that be in baseball seemingly cannot do so at such a grandiose level.

Of course, minor league baseball tends to get the limelight because of the small-town establishments these teams became as a result of greater Major League investments since the 1920s. Yet, for as many urban initiatives and marketing efforts of its best black players, MLB’s best practice in raising the numbers of African-Americans in the game is the NCAA. The question is does the NCAA want to do so.

I’ve been a part of many lively discussions on this topic within the sports media and business communities along with casual chatter over the last six years. Some were marked by unfortunate racist remarks and others provided food for thought that challenged my previous beliefs. There is no simple solution to bring the numbers of black baseball players to something that gives the appearance of new progress. However, a new generation of black players can roam major league dugouts if more NCAA programs increased their recruitment efforts.

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